Shane: It’s entirely possible that I’m among the worst choices to review this comic. I haven’t bought a physical comic in years. That’s not to say that I haven’t purchased comics — after all, we live in a world that has embraced the digital age — but nothing in hard copy, and certainly not by single issue. And yet, on Wednesday I found myself headed to my first comic book shop in years (walking seventy blocks to get there like a madman), all to purchase a single four dollar comic. I bought this comic knowing that I was going to love it, and I’m hardly the only one to show this sort of devotion towards Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl — scores of fans have shown off tattoos, or traveled great distances to cons, or created fanzines, or gone to see Kieron Gillen DJ at a random show due to how well it ties into the Phonogram narrative. It’s not uncommon for media to evoke such passion, of course…but consider, if you will, that prior to this week, Phonogram existed soley as two poorly selling limited series by creators who were, at that time, almost entirely unknown. This wasn’t even the work that built their careers — Gillen and Jamie McKelvie remained struggling artists until their breakout work at Marvel Comics — but it wouldn’t surprise me if this series, more than even Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine, will be the comic they’re most linked to in the long run.
There’s something special about Phonogram, and Gillen touches on the heart of it in the afterword to The Immaterial Girl‘s first issue, stressing that the series was essentially created as a warped autobiography to address one’s own struggles with growing up. Although a strong concept in earlier iterations of the title, it’s a concept fully realized in this third volume, placing the spotlight directly on one Emily Aster.
Previously a notable supporting character to earlier protagonist David Kohl, Emily is a perfect vessel in which to place our concerns about growing up, because she’s blatantly chosen to ignore them. Unsatisfied with her life and facing unconscionable decisions, she split off the part of her that suffered and reinvented herself as an entirely different and [fundamentally?] stronger woman. In a world where “fake it ’til you make it” is a valid life strategy, Emily has made it.
Set squarely in the immediate aftermath of Emily’s transformation, this scene places us firmly in her mind: she’s rocking a bold and consciously-developed level of confidence in her new self, taking no prisoners in her campaign to reveal her new self to the world. That the dialogue conjurs images of a phoenix thrusts her “rebirth” right in our faces, but it’s the casual reflection of boots in the puddle that teases how dramatic that rebirth might be. Even with the scene’s later mention that “Mirrors are no longer your friend” to point out the importance of reflections, the detail might go unnoticed (certainly, I didn’t make the connection until a second read), offering a prime example of how deeply Gillen and McKelvie layer the details of the story.
I’ve read each volume of Phonogram multiple times, because I am constantly finding more to love and appreciate, and it’s evident that with this volume the creators are at the top of their game. They’re not newcomers to comics anymore, floundering while they figure out their craft: every member of the creative team, from writer to artist to colorist to letterer has become a seasoned member of the industry. McKelvie pointed out not long ago the differences between how he portrayed David Kohl from the first volume to now, but it’s not just his art that has shown that level of growth.
With the foreboding hints of what lies beyond the mirror nipping at our heels, we can’t stay in Emily’s glory days forever, and soon the title flashes forward to a phase in Emily’s life where she’s perhaps slightly more vulnerable: she maintains the same level of bravado, but it’s not a spirit shared or supported by her network. And without that to bolster her own nature, she’s left herself open for her past — for her other half, the one she discarded to embrace this rockstar life — to return. The message is, obviously, obvious: you can’t hide from your past, because even if you manage to build something amazing and make the life for yourself that you’ve always wanted, your history is always going to come back and bite you in the ass.
And it’s absolute bullshit.
Of course, I would think that. Stripping away all of the magical aspects, I identify firmly with Emily as she is after her rebirth, with an outlook on life geared towards taking charge and making my own destiny. I suspect I’m one of many, and it’s entirely possible that at some point, all of us will look back on our own personal journeys and see exactly where we vainly tried to hide aspects of ourselves, and why that was the wrong decision. Still, though, isn’t that just part of growing up? Figuring out who we are, and removing the pieces of ourselves that don’t fit that future? Emily herself phrased it best in this very issue:
It can be invigorating to figure out who you are, and what you’re going to do. You feel empowered and confident and like you’re finally on top of the world and in control of your own destiny. You have a direction, a path, and you’re able to take it. But you also lose out on something wonderful: possibility. Commitment is a double edged sword, and although there’s strength to be derived from it, there’s a certain beauty in naivete. It may be telling, of course, that when the last Phonogram came around, I identified strongly with one of the most naive characters in the series. Now, I’m drawing strength from one of the most bitchy. You’ve known me for awhile and seen me through some ups and downs, Spencer — does this say something about me? And where do you think you fall on the Phonogram-representing-your-life-journey scale?
Spencer: Shane, I see my life reflected less in any one character and more in Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl‘s overarcing theme of aging. I’m nearing 30, yet spending more time than ever at shows in a scene that skews young, so I’ve grappled with my relationship with music more than once. If I see myself anywhere in this issue, it’s in that final “B-Side” back-up story — illustrated by series letterer Clayton Cowles — which finds David Kohl and a young Blur fan side-by-side.
This story is a beautiful resolution for David as a character — he’s managed to get his musically pretentious side under control by learning to appreciate that everybody has a right to love what they love, yet hasn’t completely lost his “David Kohl” edge — but I can see myself in both figures. I’ve been that girl, giving my heart to a band whose heyday was over when I was still a child yet not caring one bit, but I’ve also been David, forcing myself to put aside pointless musical and/or age based elitism. I also appreciate the fact that David is still attending shows at his age. Maybe the degree of his passion has changed over the years, but he’s found a way to age and mellow out without losing his link to the things he loves, and I can only hope that’s a balance I can continue to strike as I grow older.
Yet I can also relate to Lloyd Logos, the star of the issue’s other B-Side (featuring Sarah Gordon on art). Lloyd was one of Phonogram: The Singles Club‘s most pathetic figures, and things have only gotten worse for him in the years since; now he spends his time listening to a single song on repeat, reliving the painful memories attached to it for hours at a time. For better or for worse, his story represents this issue’s most genuine depiction of “music as magic” — music can make us feel powerful emotions and can easily become tangled up in bittersweet memories, yet people are often eager to embrace that bittersweetness. For Lloyd, “I Wish You Would” is his last connection to a lost love, and he’d rather hurt himself every day than see the last remnants of her fade away. It’s not as crazy as it sounds — at one time or another, haven’t all of us preferred to embrace a bittersweet song or memory rather than lose it forever? I know I have.
(On a seperate note, do we think all the B-Sides are gonna revisit protagonists from Singles Club? Because I am all about that.)
Of course, while I may hate to admit it, I can see a bit of myself in Emily too. I don’t have the ability to so ruthlessly reinvent myself as she does, but my teenage self — a generally happy kid occasionally crippled by some rather severe bouts of depression — would have killed for a chance at Emily’s quick fix.
Shane, I know you were worried that this series was somehow against the idea of reinventing yourself, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. The thing is, though, that reinventing yourself takes some serious self-awareness and self-improvement. The way we grow is by accepting and learning from our faults, and Emily skips those steps altogether — thus, she’s been stuck in the same place, the same abrasive persona, ever since.
That makes Emily Aster less of a reinvention and more of a mask Claire wears to cover up her faults. The closest real-world analogue I can think of is that Emily’s been repressing her emotions and Stepford Smiling (Stepford Scowling?) through all her problems. In that sense, Claire’s return isn’t Emily’s “history coming back” to haunt her, but her repressed emotions finally bursting through to the surface. This is supported by the fact that Claire never really went away — she’s always been lurking in Emily’s reflection, waiting for the perfect opportunity to make her return.
Still, it’s hard to blame Emily for choosing the easy way out — I think most of us would. That’s what makes her such a relatable lead, and I’m eager to see if/how Emily can find her way out of this predicament, especially if it involves her finally growing up. In the meantime, though, Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl 1 is still a thoroughly enjoyable comic on plenty of other levels. While Gillen’s dialogue can occasionally be a bit too inside baseball for its own good, he’s still got clever banter down to an art, and I appreciate the way he’s building this world by referencing previous volumes (such as showing the genesis of Emily and Seth Bingo’s friendship, which has devolved into full-blown hatred by the time Singles Club rolls around) without letting the references overwhelm the story.
My favorite aspect of the issue, though, is without a doubt Jamie McKelvie’s art. McKelvie just does spectacle so well, and I love the attempts he and Gillen make to age the characters throughout the issue (I laughed out loud when I first saw 2009’s doughy, balding Kohl), but what strikes me the most is the expressions and body language McKelvie gives his characters. I could find a suitable example on almost every page, but I think my favorite has to be Seth Bingo.
Even if you only glance at this image for a split second, it’s immediately apparent what kind of character Seth is. His personality absolutely oozes out of every single panel. There’s very few artists who can pull that off, but McKelvie is without a doubt one of them.
I’ll admit that Phonogram has never quite clicked for me in the same way that The Wicked + The Divine or Young Avengers (probably my favorite series of the last five years) did — I tend to get caught up trying to figure out the “rules” and mythology of Phonomancy despite that clearly not being important — but there’s no way I can look at Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl 1 and not see a quality comic. The partnership of Gillen and McKelvie (and Matthew Wilson and Cowles) is at the top of its game, and while they may have to do some digging into the story, I think anyone who loves music — or perhaps just anyone who has ever grown up in general — will be able to find themselves somewhere in this issue.